This week I ultimately decided to write about something that is not a censored performance in and of itself. In this post, I will be discussing censorship as it relates to the way in which certain things are presented, as well as the strategic selection and/or omission of information.
On January of 2007 in Knoxville, TN, Channon Christian (21) and her boyfriend Chris Newsome (23) were grand theft autoed and kidnapped together, at gunpoint, by a group of five different assailants. The young couple was taken to a dilapidated house in a shady side of town where they were both tortured and raped in various fashions with allegedly various objects. Chris was then taken to a railroad track adjacent to the house, tied up, shot several times, and lit on fire. Afterwards, Channon was sexually tortured and gang raped back at the house for an extended period of time. Bleach was poured down her throat and doused over her. She was then wrapped in a series of trash bags and stuffed into a garbage can in the kitchen. There is speculation that Channon was actually still alive when she was so hastily stuffed into this can, but perhaps died slowly of suffocation as her body was not discovered until 2 days after her and her sweetheart’s disappearance. The five perpetrators included four men (George Thomas, Letalvis Cobbins, Lemaricus Davidson, Eric Boyd) and one woman (Vanessa Coleman).
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not this crime received the amount of media coverage and national news attention proportionate to its beyond heinous nature.
Personally, I had never heard this story until very recently (like in the past couple weeks) when I was watching the show “Sins &Secrets” (season 1, episode 2) on Netflix. Sins &Secrets is one of those suspenseful Investigation Discovery crime documentaries, complete with the classically ominous narration and chilling soundtrack. Like most crime shows, it contains a combination of actual footage, live interviews, and dramatized reenactments of real events. Shows such as these, while based in reality, are often sensationalized and designed to entertain viewers. Beyond pure entertainment value though, one could also argue these shows serve the purpose of forewarning, intimidating, and educating people. I’ve always had a soft spot for crime documentaries myself, my primary excuse being that the knowledge alone will render me more aware in my everyday existence (perpetual paranoia). Each episode of Sins&Secrets focuses on a different U.S. city where a homicide took place, attempting to really set the stage and introduce the cultural landscape of the community before delving into the crime at hand. The “Knoxville” episode is no exception. In the beginning, the narrator makes a point of pointing out that while the southern city has a very eclectic makeup, it also has a clear cultural divide, summing things up with “There’s the west of Knoxville, then there’s the rest of Knoxville”. On Sins &Secrets, the west side of Knoxville is painted as this very picturesque upper-middleclass suburban paradise with images of peaceful people gallivanting about in their golf carts. In other words, it is the ideal part of town for the privileged to comfortably reside. It is here where we are introduced to the first victim, Channon Christian, who is described as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed “All American Girl”, and “The ultimate girl next door”. Channon was dating Chris Newsome (the second victim), an all American, baseball playing “Good ol’ boy”. Their relationship is described as both “White hot” and “A fairytale romance”. But then tragedy strikes.
I explained the crime above, so there’s no sense in rehashing gory details. What I want to emphasize is the way in which the world of the perpetrators and the perpetrators themselves are portrayed in this documentary. The 5 assailants hail from this dark, poverty-stricken part of town with sinister music that is “no place for the faint of heart”; a place where drugs and prostitution run rampant. The pictures we see of the accused are very unflattering shots, whereas the pictures of the victims are angelic and dreamy. Journalist Jamie Satterfield states towards the end of the episode “You had these very attractive, young white kids, and then you had these very mean looking black guys” (the 2 victims were white, the 5 perpetrators were black).The documentary heavily suggests that the crime incited racial tension amongst citizens of Knoxville, even causing vicious white supremacists to protest in the streets over what they felt was a hate crime being largely ignored by media.
This “Knoxville” episode (made in 2011) is not censored in the sense that it was taken off the network or anything. I mean, you can stream it right now on Netflix. However, I believe that the overall framing of the story and the performance/entertainment elements could be considered another form of censorship. The episode does not come right out and tell you what to think, but when you examine it holistically, there seems to be subtle bias in the re-telling of things. Naturally, most crime shows will have you sympathizing with the victim. That’s a given. But I think that this particular documentary kind of pushes the audience toward the viewpoint that what happened to Channon Christian and Chris Newsome was a hate crime with some sort of racially charged animosity.
Power, Privilege, Voice:
Just looking at this Sins &Secrets episode alone, I would say that the two victims, Channon and Chris, have power because not only is their story being told, but they are both being portrayed in a purely sympathetic and positive light. The family members of the victims also have power because they are able to speak on the behalf of their loved ones, and their opinions/commentary are included throughout the episode. The creators of the documentary have power because they chose what went into the episode and what stayed out of the episode. Individuals who believe this crime was neglected by media outlets have power because the case is now chronicled in a television show, meaning that more people will become aware of it. On the other hand, because of the way this documentary was framed, the 5 people found guilty do not have power and neither do their families and/or friends. Unlike other crime documentaries, there was absolutely no input from anyone on the behalf of the accused. We have no concept of who these people actually were and why they wound up the way they did. They have no voice.
Things get more complicated when you step away from the made-for-television documentary and focus solely on the controversy surrounding the case. As mentioned several times before, many people were outraged at the crime’s perceived minimal news coverage when compared to other big stories that dominate the media. If this is true, and Channon and Chris’ saga got the shaft, then it is they and their loved ones who are made powerless because it is almost like the atrocity never occurred. Conversely, the assailants (and those affiliated with them) are given power because when something is underreported, it becomes almost invisible to the public. At the same time, you could argue that the mainstream media’s supposed decision to shrug this story off, in turn, only fueled the hatred of white supremacists, causing unnecessary tensions to materialize in Knoxville, ultimately taking more power away from the two people who lost their lives. It sullies their already grotesque deaths with connotations of racism, and just like a family member said in an interview, “They would not have wanted that”.
So what do I think?
A crime is a crime. Channon Christian and Chris Newsome’s story disgusts me, shocks me, and infuriates me. It’s one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard to date. Whether or not the crime was motivated by some sort hatred, I can’t say for sure either way. I don’t know exactly what happened that night and why things escalated the way they did. Nobody really knows the whole story. As for the allegations that this case was censored from the media, I can only say that I’d never heard a word about it until I watched Sins &Secrets (but I’m also not the most informed person on the planet either, I’ll confess). I feel like all violent crimes of this caliber should be given equal attention when it comes to news coverage, regardless of the ethnicities of the victims and/or aggressors. There are people who do evil things from every race, sex, religion, social class, etc.
PLEASE WATCH THESE VIDEOS after you READ THE POST:
ATTENTION: If you have a Netflix account, search “Sins &Secrets” (the performance I have focused on). It is part of the Investigation Discovery series (ID). Watch episode 1 from season 1 called “Knoxville”. It is 43 minutes in length.
In the case that you do not have a Netflix account, fortunately, someone filmed their television while watching portions of the “Knoxville” episode I make reference to in the main body of my post. It offers a small glimpse of the performance elements in the documentary, as well as the underlying argument being made:
^^^This is a 16 minute documentary posted by Knoxnews detailing the case with ample commentary/ perspectives from the victim’s families, journalists, and various individuals residing in the community. Comments are disabled for this video on YouTube. I feel like it offers a more balanced view of the crime and its aftermath.
***If you’re interested, there are other YouTube videos out there that discuss the many political controversies of this case and I encourage you to do more research (I can’t post all of them though).
Here is the link to the homicide’s Wikipedia page:
Here is a link to the Facebook page in Honor of Channon and Chris (the group description is kind of interesting):
LOTS OF QUESTIONS: Had you heard about the Channon Christian and Chris Newsome murder case prior to reading this post? Are you a crime documentary junkie? If so, what is your overall impression of how information is usually represented or dramatized? If you went ahead and watched the Sins &Secrets “Knoxville” episode, how did you feel about the performance elements in it? Did it feel biased or sensationalized to you? Let me know what you think about this crime in general.